need pancakes!

snapping this quickly to avoid looking like a tourist

I went upstate to visit my college roommate last weekend. After a night out in NYC, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to drop more money on a sit-down breakfast the next morning, but when the words “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” were uttered, my mind was made up.

I’ve often been ridiculed for how easily I’ll give up a Friday night to watch Food Network — particularly Guy Fieri “rolling out” to ridiculous restaurants and incredible hole-in-the-wall eateries all across the country. I love marveling at just how far these chefs’ creativity can go (and at how amazing Guy Fieri’s job is), so when my friends told me the diner down the street had been featured on ‘Triple D’, I was stoked.

The Brownstone Diner in Jersey City is about as much of a “family place” as you can get — not only as a dining experience, but also in its back-story. The menu is massive, the food is fantastic and the wait wasn’t nearly as long as it should have been for a Sunday morning.

Above: Started my meal with a raspberry steamer (steamed milk, no caffeine — it makes me shake), followed by four golden potato pancakes and applesauce. Special thanks to my dining companions for mocking my need to document everything I eat.


cranberry turtle bars

Hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving. I love this holiday because it’s the only one where food is truly the star of the show. I’m not yet at the point where I can cook the entire Thanksgiving meal on my own (nor am I anywhere close), but I managed to contribute this year by way of these cranberry turtle bars.

No disrespect to anyone who bakes homemade pies for the holiday, but I find them a bit boring. I wanted to throw a little variety into our dessert spread, and something cranberry that wasn’t a gross, gelatinous consistency seemed like a good idea. (Yeah, I’m as much of a fan of cranberry sauce as I am of pumpkin pie.) These cranberry bars have a perfect tartness, balanced by the shortbread crust and sweet chocolate drizzle.

looks aren't everything...

The ingredients were a bit expensive relative to other things I’ve made, but it was for the sake of the holiday and it yielded a ton of treats (about 20 giant bars, or 40+ smaller ones). Apparently, pecans are pretty elusive nuts compared to commonplace peanuts and walnuts; I struggled to find them in the store, and — not surprisingly — a small bag was pretty pricey.

Cubing the butter was a disaster, and cutting the butter into the shortbread crust mix didn’t go very well, either. When I pressed the batter into the baking dish, it didn’t seem as evenly dispersed as it should have been. To remedy the situation (and moisten the crust?), I gave a few spritzes of baking spray to the less buttery side.

The “caramel” involved here is a loose interpretation, and I’m sure this might have come together a little better if I had a candy thermometer; instead, I flew by the seat of my pants and prayed it’d all turn out okay. You can either follow my directions below, or see the above link for the legit recipe.

♦2 c. flour
1/2 c. packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 sticks butter, cold, cut into cubes

2 sticks butter
1 2/3 c. sugar
1/4 c. light corn syrup
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 c. cranberries, coarsely chopped
1 tsp. vanilla
3 c. pecans, toasted and cooled, coarsely chopped

2 oz. chocolate, finely chopped

Line a 15-by-10-inch baking dish with tinfoil, and butter all four sides (but not the bottom). Blend flour, brown sugar and salt in food processor, then add butter and pulse until it forms into small lumps. Sprinkle into pan and press down evenly with spatula. Bake at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes, until firm.

In the meantime, melt butter for topping in saucepan over medium heat and stir in sugar, corn syrup and salt. Boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for about 8 minutes. Stir in cranberries, then boil. Remove from heat, add vanilla and stir in pecans until coated. Quickly spread mixture over shortbread, distributing evenly. Garnish with melted chocolate. IMPORTANT: Let the bars cool completely before cutting; I waited two hours for this to be manageable.

Total time? About 35 minutes to prep, bake and prepare. Let stand two hours.
Cost? $4.99 for about 2 cups chopped pecans, $2.49 for light corn syrup, $3.99 for way too many cranberries.
Overall success relative to expectations? 7 out of 10. My expectations wavered on this. Initially, I had high expectations, but once I got my hands into this (and realized I didn’t have a candy thermometer), they started to come back down to Earth. After I cut into the uncooled bars and the topping spilled over, I thought, “So…this was a disaster,” but the end product turned out to be pretty successful. Aesthetically, they could have been a lot better (they were nowhere near as beautiful as Curvy Carrot’s), but there’s always next time.

black-bottom cake, you make the rockin’ world go round

click for a better view!

“More pumpkin?! When are you going to be done with that stupid can?”

My friend, Randi, dislikes almost everything that’s not chicken fingers. I’ve been trying to broaden her palate by offering her some of my non-chicken finger kitchen creations. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Despite her distaste for pumpkin, I managed to lure Randi into helping me make these black-bottom mini caramel pumpkin cheesecakes — quite a mouthful, both literally and phonetically.

She’s right: This can of pumpkin purée seems to be unending, but I’m not complaining, and neither were the visitors I had over the next three days. People loved these things. I even went for some style points — putting the cakes on a plate, drizzling them with caramel sauce and topping them off with a Hershey’s Pumpkin Spice Kiss right before my guests’ eyes.

The hardest part was the 10 minutes Randi and I spent trying to figure out how to use my new food processor. It took approximately five minutes for us to realize we hadn’t put the blade back in after filling the cup with Oreos. It took another five for us to realize we had to match up the little dots to get the motor to turn on. When it finally began chopping, you would have thought we won the Super Bowl.

♦8 whole Oreos, ground in food processor
1 1/2 tbl. melted butter
8 oz. softened cream cheese
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. pumpkin purée
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
Caramel sauce (from a bottle works — I used Hershey’s)
12 Hershey’s Pumpkin Spice Kisses, unwrapped

Combine crushed Oreos and melted butter in a bowl. Spoon into 12 muffin cups that have been coated well with cooking spray. Push into the bottom of each cup so the crust is flat and packed. Partially bake for 10 minutes at 350 degrees, and remove from oven. In a separate bowl, beat cream cheese, sugar and pumpkin until smooth. Beat in egg, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg. Pour evenly into cups, about 3/4 full. Spoon a teaspoon of caramel onto the tops of the cups and swirl with toothpick. Bake 25-28 minutes at 350 degrees. Let cool completely. When serving, top with caramel and Kiss.

Total time? 10 minutes prep (20 minutes if you don’t know how to use a food processor), 25 minutes bake.
Cost? $2.69 bag of Pumpkin Spice Hershey Kisses, $2.19 can of pumpkin purée, $1.79 caramel sauce, $2.99 Oreos, $1 cream cheese.
Overall success relative to expectations? 7 out of 10. I really enjoyed the taste of these, and I’m not even a big cheesecake fan. If I had a mini-cheesecake cup tin, this adventure might have earned an 8; it was difficult to get the cakes out of my muffin tin, and I lost some crust in transit. Make sure you wait until the cakes are completely cooled to take them out. I also cut a corner by using caramel sauce instead of the Lifehouse caramel dip Picky Palate recommends, so the coating wasn’t as substantial — or enjoyable — as it could have been. Either way, Randi didn’t hate them (though she substituted out the Kiss for some chocolate chips), so I’ll consider it a victory.

from my head to my taquitos

When I look back on what I ate in college, I can’t help but cringe. It’s not like I’m eating caviar and escargot these days, but my diet back then — whether by lack of funding or ambition — was appalling. I remember the day I made a container of Ramen noodles, placed it on the ground next to my chair and then put my foot directly in it when I got up to answer the door. I salvaged what noodles and broth remained in the cup and continued eating. What? I paid a full 79¢ for that stuff and I didn’t feel like waiting another three minutes to eat.

Nowadays, thoughts of Ramen or Easy Mac or Domino’s 5-5-5 ne’er cross my mind, but there is one of my college guilty pleasures about which I sometimes get nostalgic: the 7-Eleven taquito. That hot, Monterey Jack chicken filling? That crisp, greasy encasement you could feel sticking to your insides moments after consumption? Ahh, yes, I sure miss you, old friend.

Fortunately, I’ve found a way to fill that void without giving myself a coronary: creamy chicken taquitos (a la Let’s Dish). This is by far one of the best savory things I’ve created on my quest for kitchen glory. It is easy to make and share, has great flavor and doesn’t leave you wondering how long it’s been spinning on that metal hot dog-turny thing.

creamy chicken taquitos

♦4 oz. low-fat cream cheese
1/4 c. green salsa
1 tbl. lime juice
1/2 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. onion powder
1 clove garlic, minced
3 tbl. chopped fresh cilantro (I omitted)
1-2 green onions, chopped
2 c. shredded cooked chicken
1 cup shredded pepperjack cheese
6-inch flour tortillas

Heat cream cheese in microwave for 30 seconds, until it’s easy to stir. Add green salsa, lime juice, cumin, chili powder, onion powder and garlic. Stir to combine, then add cilantro (if desired) and green onions. Add chicken and cheese, and combine. Place two to three tablespoons of mixture on lower third of tortilla (1/2 inch from edges) and roll tightly. Place seam-side down on a sprayed baking sheet. Spray tops of taquitos with cooking spray before baking to help them brown. Bake 10-12 minutes at 400 degrees, turning halfway through.

Total time? 20 minutes prep, 12 minutes bake.
Cost? $1.79 tortillas, $2 chicken, $1 cream cheese, $1.69 shredded cheese.
Overall success relative to expectations? 9 out of 10. These would have been perfect if they had a tad more spice, but overall, they were awesome. I ate them for dinner, lunch the next day, dinner that night and lunch the day after that without getting sick of them. I got eight out of this recipe, and you can freeze the leftovers (if you have any).

chocolate fungus ball?

I watch a lot of “Top Chef.” I’m always hearing about ceviche, risotto, tartare and molecular gastronomy. Over the seasons, I’ve picked up on the basics, but I’ve always been slightly confused on what a truffle actually is. I mean, I know I’ve eaten it as a dessert before, but why the hell are they talking about mushrooms? Was I eating a chocolate-covered fungus ball!?

Thanks to a little bit of research, I can rest easy knowing that wasn’t the case — no disrespect to mushrooms, of course. Turns out a truffle is a rare, edible mushroom considered a delicacy in many parts of the world, and a chocolate truffle is a confectionery that has no relation to the fungus (unless, of course, you filled that confectionery with mushroom).

Unfortunately, knowing what a chocolate truffle is isn’t even half the battle of making one, as I recently discovered in my attempt to make chocolate-pumpkin truffles. I had good intentions (making these for a work party, trying something I’d never tried before), but the execution was pitiful.

Word of advice: When a recipe calls for “candy coating” and/or “tempering,” don’t try to use chocolate chips. Siiigh.

My biggest mistake was poor planning, seeing as the truffle filling needs to sit in the fridge for at least two hours and I didn’t start this plight until 9 p.m. After my weekly soccer game, I stopped at ShopRite to pick up some ingredients — namely meltable candy coating for the outside of the truffles, which, not surprisingly, ShopRite doesn’t carry. It was getting late, and I was starting to panic, so I opted for a one-pound bag of chocolate chips, thinking, “This is probably the same thing…right?” When I got home and Googled “how to make truffles with chocolate chips,” I found out it was a cardinal sin. And I did it anyway.

As if that weren’t enough to lead this truffle trial to failure, my impatience was. After about 45 minutes in the fridge, I pulled the filling and attempted to roll it. Didn’t go so well, as seen at left. It looked like I’d been attacked by that sludge monster thing in “FernGully.”

I got angry, threw the bowl in the freezer and caught the end of “The Apprentice.” When I returned, I worked some poor-man’s tempering, aka melting chocolate chips and cream in the microwave and not really tempering at all. (I’ll attempt to temper some other time.) I rolled the filling into balls, dipped in the melted chocolate and rolled them in chocolate sprinkles. They quickly turned into big messy blobs, but I was so far gone at this point (about 1 a.m.), that I kept rollin’ rollin’ rollin’ like I was in a Limp Bizkit song, popped them in an airtight container and threw them in the fridge.

When I tried one the next day, it wasn’t as bad as I expected — then again, you have to be the worst cook in the world to make chocolate rolled in chocolate and then dipped in chocolate taste bad. They got melty incredibly fast, so I had to keep them in the fridge. Also, beware of the chocolate sprinkles getting stuck in your teeth.

I’m not going to bother listing the recipe because I barely followed it, so if you’re interested in doing this the right way, click here.

Total time? Three LONG hours.
Cost? $2.39 for chocolate chips, $1.39 heavy cream, $1.89 pumpkin, $2.09 sprinkles.
Overall success relative to expectations? 5 out of 10. I had low expectations going into this — especially taking the shortcuts I did. I wanted the pumpkin taste to come through some more, but after everything I went through, the fact that these tasted good at all earned this adventure some bonus points. One of my taste-testers said they were like Dunkin Donuts Munchkins. I’m not sure that’s something you want your truffle likened to, but hey, that works for now. Next time, though, I will do this the right way.

asiago no-go

Sometimes when my family discusses days of yore, we’ll bring up how fitting it was that my brother’s first word was “no,” considering he was a disobedient devil in school and a terror at home (for about 22 straight years). My first word? “Cheese,” which they also consider apropos due to my childhood affinity for Land O’ Lakes white American (sliced thin) and my relative hatred for anything but.

My high school English teacher did a deserted island exercise once and asked us what one food we would pick. My answer? Cheese. “Do you have any idea what a steady diet of cheese would do to your innards?” she asked. Yup. Don’t care.

So given my love for cheese, it’s a bit surprising how little I actually know about it. I’ve got a pretty good handle on American, cheddar and mozzarella, but I’ve only just begun branching out to more “exotic” cheeses. Sadly, this experience with the eggplant and asiago panini may have set me back a bit in that venture.

A word of advice: If you’re using an ingredient you’ve never tasted before — especially one that’s going to be a major, melted component of your dish — try it first. I foolishly thought, “I like Panera’s Asiago bread. There’s no way putting a big hunk of this smelly cheese on an otherwise awesome sandwich would ruin my dinner!” Wrong-o. (And I thought my cost-saving use of a kaiser roll instead of legit panini-making bread would be the make-or-break of the meal. That actually turned out to be the best part.)

If you’re a fan of the strong-tasting Asiago, the dish is simple: Cook one eggplant (sliced and seasoned with salt and pepper) with a little bit of olive oil in a pan for about 6 minutes. Place on bread. Cover with slice of Asiago. Add roasted red peppers if desired. Grill in panini press or cook on frying pan as grilled cheese.

Total time? 15 minutes.
Cost? More expensive than I wanted: $5.49 Asiago wedge, 69¢ roll, $1.29 eggplant
Overall success relative to expectations? 2 out of 10. Even after I scraped the melted Asiago off the sandwich, my meal was inedible. And thank God I ended up with a whole wedge of cheese I absolutely hate. Sigh. Really, though, I can’t get mad about this; it’s my own fault for not trying the cheese beforehand. Next time, it’ll be mozzarella for sure.

is The Oatmeal stalking me?

A few months ago, one of my friends posted a link on Facebook to a comic/etc. site called The Oatmeal, and I’ve been hooked ever since. I shared this little gem about Mac in my office, and the addiction spread. I can always tell when my co-worker, Stef, is taking an Oatmeal break because I hear a few chuckles and then fits of giggling coming from her cube.

Yesterday, The Oatmeal posted this comic: “Why I Don’t Cook at Home.” This is exactly what my kitchen adventures look like (except that whole being a giant white blob thing).